‘Improving social work relies on innovative practitioners and service users, not big ideas’

To reform social work,government should look to the good ideas already in practice, not impose 'slash and burn' policies, argues Robert Templeton

By Robert Templeton

Last Thursday was an important day for social work. The Department for Education announced plans to set up a new social work body to oversee and regulate social work practice, education and training. On the same day the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) announced that Dr Ruth Allen would be its new chief executive.

This prompted me to reflect on the twists and turns in government policy on social work since I trained to become a practitioner.

In 1989 at the age of 19 I decided to be a social worker. I wanted a job that would make a difference and help people. However my age and experience proved to be more of a barrier than my academic attainment in qualifying. The health secretary at the time, Virginia Bottomley, herself a former social worker, had pronounced that social work required ‘streetwise grannies’ with life experience and practical know-how.

To get on a social work course you needed relevant experience (three years’ minimum) in a health or social care setting and you had to be 21 or over. So I took a job as a care worker with disabled children, eventually managing to enrol on one of the first diploma in social work (DipSW) courses at Anglia Ruskin. I enjoyed the DipSW but it was a bit like ‘tapas’, dipping into interesting areas of practice but never having time to fully immerse yourself in a subject before moving onto the next.

From streetwise grannies to bright young things

Fast forward 27 years and we have gone from “streetwise grannies” to “bright young things” with the education secretary Nicky Morgan calling for the “best and the brightest graduates” to become social workers.

It seems that social work is destined to float with the flotsam and jetsam of successive government policies which are designed to ‘fix’ one aspect without regard to the broad spectrum of health and social care in which it operates. Throughout my career I have seen many initiatives get traction and cross-party support, sometimes irrespective of strong evidence or regard to the context in which social work operates.

My fear following last week’s announcement is that almost 90,000 registered social workers in England, less than one-third of whom work in statutory children’s services, will be sucked though a narrow hole, predominantly designed to improve standards in child protection.

What social work reform needs

I believe social work reform works best when it involves the determination of those who manage, work and use services and where there is a modest amount of money to make things happen. For example the Think Local Act Personal (TLAP) partnership has had great influence in social work practice with adults and its principles of person-centred support are now embedded into legislation through the Care Act.

Similarly, the Making Safeguarding Personal project, supported by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass), is reforming social work practice in adult safeguarding by putting the person in control and adapting some interventions found in children’s social work, such as family group conferencing, for work with adults in in vulnerable situations.

In children’s services Link Maker is a social enterprise founded by two adoptive parents developed around a kitchen table in 2014, whose Adoption Link service quickly became responsible for the majority of inter-agency adoptive placements in the UK.

No ‘slash and burn’ policies

My message to leaders and decision makers is that innovation in social work will not fall from a ‘blue sky’ or from ‘slash and burn’ policies. The best most sustainable ideas come from the hearts and minds of those who currently work in or receive social work services.

The danger in searching for the next ‘quick trick, one tick solution’ is that we miss the good ideas already there. What is needed for social work to flourish is not necessarily one or two big ideas or huge amounts of money but a collaborative and inclusive strategy that creates a golden thread from policy to frontline practice. I am proud to be a social worker, it is a brilliant profession but in addressing its challenges we must also celebrate its achievements.

Another important day for social work

Tomorrow is another important day for social work. BASW is holding a social work summit to debate the future direction of the profession and the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) is reviewing its Standards of proficiency for social workers in England, its standards for registration. I hope the work that comes from these events will help influence the government’s plans.

However in order for social work to influence future government it must unite, shout louder, argue stronger and where necessary, fight fiercer to make itself heard. We need to use all sections and all forms of media to communicate social work’s progressive, innovative and important contribution to health and social care. We must join, support and shape professional bodies such as BASW to ensure they are in a position to be in the room, at the table and leading the debate when key decisions are made.

Social work leaders need to be positive and proactive in driving the health and care agenda, backed up with clear, well-reasoned, evidence informed ways of working. At all levels and whatever happens, we must work collaboratively with all regulators, government departments, professional bodies and, most importantly, those who use services to promote the crucial role that social work has in supporting and protecting all of us all when we need help most.

Robert Templeton is a social worker who runs the Well Street Better Care and Health consultancy.

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One Response to ‘Improving social work relies on innovative practitioners and service users, not big ideas’

  1. J Smith January 20, 2016 at 6:43 am #

    Robert Templeton is also a member of the HCPC Council: